Harry Truman is not a name usually associated with America’s Civil Rights movement if only because the main ‘points’ happened after his presidency – Montgomery, Little Rock, Birmingham, the careers of Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael. However, some very important civil rights issues were covered in his presidency.
What was achieved in Truman’s presidency with regards to civil rights legislation?
his administration published “To Secure These Rights” in 1947 a drive was started in 1948 to end discrimination in federal employment in 1950, the Supreme Court all but overturned what is referred to as Plessy v Ferguson. These were a series of laws dating from 1896 which effectively approved the “Jim Crow” segregation laws that characterised the South. The laws introduced the “separate but equal” philosophy of the south – but with the backing of the highest legal body in America.
These were major achievements in the history of the civil rights cause. So why did they take place during the presidency of Truman who was born in Missouri where racism was rampant and where Truman would have experienced racial practice and been part of it ?
Truman was born in 1884 and it would have been natural for him to be a racist as it was part of southern culture then. He lived his early years in Independence, Missouri which was a city rife with racism. Any elderly African Americans who lived in Independence had been slaves before 1865 and whereas the well-to-do whites of Independence lived in pleasant tree lined avenues, the African Americans lived in the hovels one associates with the treatment of African Americans at that time. Such poverty and squalor lead to the African Americans there getting involved in crime if only to exist. But their involvement perpetuated the myth of Jim Crow – that these were untrustworthy, uncivilised people who did not deserve anything decent. The whites of Independence referred to the African Americans as “niggers”, “coons” or simply as “boy” – regardless of the age of the person being spoken to.
Truman’s ancestors had owned slaves. His first recollection of African Americans was a household servants within his family – and he did not come from a prosperous family. While he was dating his future wife Bess, she claimed that he told her that he felt that one person was as good as any other as long as they were not black. He also criticised the Chinese in America, the Jews – to whom he referred to as “Kikes” and the Italians in America who he called “wops”. Hence, Truman’s background produced what one would have expected and the young Truman would have had the same views as most other youths in Independence. When he got involved in politics at an early age, he did what any aspiring politician did in the South, he paid $10 to join the KKK.
Public office changed Truman. Why? Did he feel that America could not claim to be the democratic capital of the world while African Americans were treated thus? Or were his motives political? The African American population was big enough to have some political clout. Was he out to fish for their votes with his adoption of the civil rights cause?
Truman and civil rights legislation:
Before he became president, Truman show demonstrated that he had some civil rights credentials. In his campaign to be re-elected senator for Missouri, he said the following in 1940:
At the time, this was a very radical thing to say in Missouri especially as his audience was predominantly white. When appointed vice-president by FD Roosevelt, it was mainly because FDR saw him as being reasonably liberal for a Missouri man. FDR died in office in 1945 and as the Constitution decrees, Truman took over the position of president without being elected to it.
To start with, Truman did nothing of importance to advance the cause of the African Americans. Why, if this man was so liberal for a Missouri man?
The answer is relatively simple. His country was involved in the final stages of the wars in Europe and the Far East. Some domestic issues had to take a back seat and civil rights was one. Also immediately after the end of the European war, Truman was faced with the greatest of dilemmas – do you use the atomic bomb or not ? Following this, his main priority was attempting to deal with Stalin and the USSR in the start of the Cold War. In terms of time, 1945 to 1946 did not present Truman with many opportunities to advance the cause of civil rights – foreign policy dictated his agenda.
As an example. In 1945, the Fair Employment Practices (FEPC), which in theory tried to end racial discrimination with regards to the hiring of labour, was involved in a case against a Washington DC transportation company. The FEPC had been set up by Roosevelt and it had been successful in a number of northern cities already. However, in 1945, Truman did not give the FEPC any support over this issue and nothing was done to enforce the will of the FEPC in this instance. Truman could not even persuade Congress to finance the FEPC – but his time was occupied with world-wide issues and perhaps his mind was on more international issues than this one in Washington DC.
In 1946, Truman did establish a civil rights committee whose task was to examine violence against African Americans within America itself. This committee was filled with known liberals who Truman knew would produce a report that would and should shock mainstream America. The report was issued in October 1947.
The report was called “To Secure These Rights“. It was highly critical of a nation that appeared to tolerate the way African Americas were treated at a time that the nation also claimed to be the world’s leading light of democracy and protecting the world against the evils of communism which destroyed the individual rights of the people under the tyranny of communist governments. The report wanted
the federal government to use its authority to end segregation in America lynching to be made a federal offence the poll tax to be abolished voting rights introduced for African Americans which guaranteed their right to vote in elections free from threats of violence the FEPC to be made a permanent feature in America an end to discrimination in interstate travelan end to discrimination in the armed forces the powerful Justice Department in Washington to have a permanent Civil Rights section government financial backing for law suits taken by African Americans or others in favour of civil rights when heard in a federal court the creation of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
These were revolutionary demands in a nation where the South had state laws that legally kept whites and African Americans apart. In the north and west, there were no state laws enforcing racial separation, but segregation was a fact of life anyway. For its time, the committee’s report was quite extraordinary. Truman called for the implementation of all the recommendations in his State of the Union speeches of 1947 and 1948. In the latter speech, he used the background of the Cold War to urge Congress to assist him in pushing through the report’s recommendations. He claimed that the world was being given a choice between Soviet-style dictatorship or American-style democracy. Where did civil rights fit into this?
In 1948 – election year – Truman issued two Executive Orders banning segregation in the armed forces and guaranteeing fair employment practices in the civil service. The military took two years to push through the law and very few African Americans became officers. But the number of front line troops who were African American did increase in the Korean War when compared to the Second World War. In the civil service, the Federal Employment Board was created in 1948 to give minorities equal treatment in federal employment agencies. However, it was short of money from the first and many in federal agencies were far too conservative to give it their support. However, the Executive Order had set a precedent about the desire to have equality.
In 1951, Truman introduced another Executive Order which established the Committee on Government Contract Compliance. (CGCC). The desire here was to use the power of federal purchasing when buying defence equipment to ensure that any company which wished to be considered by the government for supplying military equipment to the armed forces had to have an equal policy towards minorities. That the federal government could make or break a major defence company, meant that in theory, the companies would adhere to Truman’s wishes. However, CGCC had no power of enforcement which infuriated African American leaders, but it was a forerunner of much more potent federal legislation to come.
Not all that Truman did succeeded. His urban renewal programme did backfire. The programme was designed to make squalid urban areas more pleasant to live in which meant knocking done substandard housing estates and building more open public housing estates. His idea was to make more pleasant what had been previously ghettos. However, fewer houses lead to many African American families becoming homeless. The programme built fewer homes than it knocked down.
But Truman was the first president since Lincoln to address the civil rights issue. His inauguration in 1949 was an integrated celebration and he could not undo in a few years the culture of the South that had been developed in the previous 150 years. Segregation remained even at the end of his presidency. Laws had been passed but without the desire to implement them in the states they targeted, the laws remained a fact on paper but not in day-to-day life in the South.